Everybody loves a secret. Perhaps that's why furniture with hidden compartments is popular.
"Hidden elements in furniture are split down the middle between extra storage and extra function that customers don't expect to get," says Robert Stamper, marketing vice president of Drexel Heritage Furnishings in Drexel, N.C.
The idea of unexpected features in furniture is hardly a new one. Early examples include secret compartments in desks and cabinets, a chair that turns over to become a library ladder, and breakfronts with pullout desks.
Modern pieces that carry the idea forward include recliners, sleep sofas, and dining tables that hold their own leaves.
A raft of furniture with extra storage tucked in or some other element of surprise is showing up on retail sales floors. Any piece of furniture that causes people to say "gee-whiz" is quite often a winner, according to Stamper.
One piece with that gee-whiz factor from Drexel's new Mandalay Collection is slated for retail stores this fall. It's an armoire with a place for jewelry and men's ties at the sides of the section typically used to hold a television set.
A buffet in the same collection has wine racks secreted behind what look like two drawers.
A sofa in Drexel's Pinehurst Collection has drawers in the base that can hold CDs, videos, remote controls, "all the things you don't want to put on the cocktail table," Stamper says.
"Secret compartments are a whimsical reference to a less secure time when they were a serious way of hiding jewelry and important documents," says Joel Natkin, art director at Councill Cos. of Denton, N.C.
Councill builds hidden storage into many chests and ottomans, Natkin said. Most of the company's secretaries have pullout work surfaces, and a slender bench meant for the bottom of a bed has a quilted leather top that opens.
Sometimes, the extra dimension isn't storage but the flexibility that casters provide. Casters date back at least to the late 18th century, when they were placed on ladies' worktables and dressing stands, among other items.
The modern update is to use very large casters, so that larger pieces of furniture can be easily moved. Drexel, for example, put 5-inch casters on a square dining table and on a large bookcase-storage unit.
Perhaps because he switched to furniture design from an earlier career as a magician and a builder of magic illusions, New York-based designer Dakota Jackson has been asked to create custom furniture with secret compartments.
As far as he knows, the pieces are still being used, so Jackson refuses to divulge the names of clients. It is known, however, that John Lennon owned a desk by Jackson with a secret compartment.
There can be complications. The secret compartment of one desk by Jackson opened by means of electronic sensory fields. The owner was mystified and annoyed when the compartment started opening and closing of its own accord.
"The problem turned out to be the electric typewriter," Jackson says. "When the typewriter was turned on, its electric field interfered with the one in the desk and the trigger went haywire. I had to take out the electronic field and put in a manual switch."
Jackson regards pieces with secret compartments as too complex for mass production.
But Stamper says it would be relatively easy to add a pivoting secret compartment to dressers and chests. There often is a narrow space about 4 inches long at the side that could be fitted with a slender flip-out tray. Removing the top drawer would give access to the tray.
"Most people never take the drawer all the way out," Stamper says, "and even if they did, they could look for hours and not find the secret compartment.
"If the salesperson forgot to tell them, they would never find it."
Jackson sees a different problem: "Most people can't keep a secret and once the secrecy is compromised, the whole point is lost."
* Councill Cos. of Denton, N.C.: (336) 859-2155.
* Pinehurst Collection by Drexel Heritage Furnishings: (800) 437-3935.